Future Tense

Vice Admiral (Retd) R.N. Ganesh

Submarines as a potent Instrument of Sea Power 

In the hundred odd years since submarines were first used in sea warfare, they have clearly demonstrated their immense potential to influence the course of war. They have a number of unique characteristics that give them outstanding advantages in naval warfare, and are extremely cost-effective in comparison with other vessels of equivalent displacement. Ton for ton, they carry more firepower, require fewer men to operate, and have far greater endurance than a surface combatant. Their outstanding quality is their stealth, which enables them to go in harm’s way and makes them an invaluable asset in covert operations and intelligence gathering. In war, a single submarine can tie down a large proportion of the adversary’s air and surface resources merely by its sheer presence in an area.

Warfare has changed in the last half-century, and the submarine’s capabilities have grown to meet its new requirements. Foremost among these have been the limitless underwater endurance of the nuclear submarine and the awesome strike power of modern submarines with their long range ballistic and cruise missiles. Modern submarines are capable of a range of missions that cover the whole spectrum from less-than-war situations to outright hostilities. They are therefore an essential component of the Navy for the safeguarding of national security and the furtherance of maritime interests.

Indian Navy’s Submarine Arm

With the strategic and tactical benefits that submarines had demonstrated during the World Wars and the important role that they had played during that conflict, it was inevitable that immediately after Independence , the Indian Navy would take steps for acquiring submarines and developing the capability to maintain and operate them. The creation of the Indian Navy’s submarine arm in the late sixties was by no means a smooth or unopposed affair. The Indian Navy was commanded for several years after Independence by officers on loan from the Royal Navy and any interest Indian Naval staff officers showed in the creation of underwater warfare capability was firmly discouraged by the British C-in-C.

It was only in 1959, when last an Indian Officer had been appointed in command of the Navy, that Naval Headquarters could take up the submarine proposal in earnest with the Government. After a great deal of persuasion, the Naval Headquarters (NHQ) managed to obtain Government approval to send a team of officers to be trained in submarines by the Royal Navy, but there was a stipulation that this did not imply approval for the creation of a submarine force!  So it was that in the early sixties, that  a group of Indian Navy officers was sent to the UK for submarine training. The logical sequel should have been the acquisition of a couple of submarines on completion of the training. This, however, did not happen, for the reasons already stated.

The next year the NHQ succeeded in getting the Government to explore the possibility of purchasing two submarines from abroad, the UK being the preferred vendor. By now our officers knew enough to ask for submarines of current technology, rather than the world-war leftovers like the surface warships that the Indian Navy had got used to receiving from the British. Not only did the UK Government not agree; they also offered the Indian Navy the old “A” or “T” boats, some of which didn’t even have a snort system, and had to surface to charge batteries. The Indian Government declined this half-hearted offer and began to look elsewhere for their submarine warfare capability. At this stage, the USSR stepped in with the offer of new Project 641 (Foxtrot) class, which were comparable to the British ‘O’ and ‘P’ classes. The Indian Government accepted the proposal, and the first batch of Indian Naval officers were sent to the USSR in 1966. The long-awaited commissioning of the first submarine of the Indian Navy took place in December 1967. In the next three years, three more submarines were commissioned, and the very next year saw the fledgling Arm tested in war. They were deployed at the enemy’s doorstep, but since the Pak Navy remained in harbour, the submarine arm remained un-blooded.

Consolidation and Development

In the seventies, the Navy undertook consolidation of the submarine force and its expansion from four to eight submarines. The Indian Navy developed maintenance and operating skills, and its submariners attained commendable standards of professional competence. This was at a time when the Australian and Canadian Navies, despite having possessed submarines earlier, were still borrowing British officers to command their boats.

In the eighties, the Indian Navy formulated long-term plans for its submarine arm. Admiral AK Chatterjee, who as Chief of the Naval Staff had played a key role in the creation of the Arm, had in a study published after his retirement, recommended a force level of twenty conventional and six nuclear submarines.  While the question of acquiring nuclear submarines was a complex matter, force development of conventional boats was actively progressed. In December 1981, a contract was concluded with Messrs HDW of The Federal Republic of Germany for the purchase of two Type 1400 SSK submarines. More importantly, the contract also stipulated German assistance for the construction of two more SSK submarines in the Mazagon Docks Yard at Mumbai.  Simultaneously, the Indian Government approved the acquisition of a new batch of submarines of Type 877 (‘Kilo’ class) from the USSR . These vessels joined the Navy between 1986 and 1992.

Meanwhile, efforts to acquire a nuclear submarine capability continued. The USSR offered assistance to India in this venture and after detailed discussions an agreement was signed with the Soviet Union for the lease of a Project 670 Nuclear submarine (NATO code name Charlie) with cruise missiles. The submarine was commissioned as INS Chakra, and her arrival in India in February 1988 caused a stir around the world. The stated aim of the three-year lease of the Chakra was for the Indian Navy to acquire experience in the operation and maintenance of nuclear submarines. It was made clear by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that the submarine was nuclear–propelled, but not armed with nuclear weapons.

Thus, the end of the eighties saw the Indian Navy with a force level of 18 submarines, including the leased Chakra. As far as diesel electric submarines were concerned, the plans of the Naval planners were almost on track.

Indigenous Submarine Building Capability

It has been an article of faith with the senior leadership of the Indian Navy that an indigenous shipbuilding capability, including the capability to build submarines, is vital for the nation and that such a capability would be an integral element of maritime power. Indeed, the central objective of the SSK programme was the establishment of our own submarine building capability. From this perspective, despite the apparently healthy growth of the Arm the long-term view in the mid-nineties was not encouraging. Of the 18 submarines in the naval inventory, only two were built indigenously, and that too under licence from the Germany with hundred percent of the equipment being imported from them.  The Navy’s vision of the Indian shipbuilding industry graduating from the assembly of submarines under licence to their actual construction was lost sight of in the scandal that followed charges of financial improprieties by the then Government. We attained the dubious distinction of being the first country in the world to voluntarily abandon the vital strategic capability of building submarines. Successive governments have not been able to summon the strategic vision or political courage to resume the quest for an indigenous submarine, and the country’s naval shipbuilding industry has lost two decades of development because of this indecision. While the submarine Arm grew in strength in the eighties and nineties, the abandonment of the submarine-building programme was a grievous setback to the Navy’s vision of freedom from dependency on other countries for maintenance of submarine force levels.

There were other concerns looming. The first lot of submarines were ageing, and their phasing–out had begun. With the problems becoming ever more visible by the mid-nineties, the Naval Staff forwarded proposals for the procurement of replacements and for an indigenous construction programme. After a protracted struggle with the bureaucracy, a thirty-year submarine building programme was approved. The programme was praised at various forums as progressive and decisive, and as an indicator of the Government’s commitment to the Navy’s development. But when concrete proposals were put up from NHQ, these were bogged down in endless rounds of discussions and file pushing.

Air-Independent Propulsion

Although modern diesel-electric submarines have improved tremendously in the decades since the end of World War II, they still suffer from the basic disadvantage that they have to come up for air periodically to charge their batteries and refresh their air supply. Nuclear submarines are true submarines in the sense that they can stay submerged indefinitely and are independent of the atmosphere, even having the capability to create their own air and water supplies on board. Several countries- Sweden , France and Germany among them, have developed AIP systems of various types. The only AIP system currently known to be in operational service is the Sterling engine that is fitted in five of the Swedish Navy’s submarines. France has developed the MESMA system, and like the Swedish AIPS, is a closed cycle thermal system. The MESMA system has a rotary engine and will therefore be less noisy (an important consideration in submarines). The German submarine has reportedly completed sea trials on its fuel cell-based AIP system on the Type 214. The fuel cell system is an electrochemical system with no moving parts, which is undoubtedly an advantage. However, there are special requirements for the cryogenic storage and handling of the hydrogen-generating metallic alloys that are the feature of the system.

AIP systems as they exist at present, are certainly not going to free conventional submarines from their dependence on the atmosphere, as is sometimes thought. When in actual contact with the adversary, the submarine would need to revert to her batteries for the surges of power that a tactical situation would demand. In a tactical situation, the submarine may need bursts of speed of twenty knots or more. This speed cannot be delivered by an AIP system, which today typically can give a submarine only about a fifth of its maximum speed. After drawing on the batteries in such a scenario, they would require to be recharged with high power, which again an AIP system cannot provide. What an AIP system does do is that it enables a submarine to “loiter” in her assigned area while conserving battery power for the encounter with the adversary when that happens.

Dwindling Force Levels

Governmental approach to the maintenance of force levels has to be based on the acceptance that replacement ships and submarines must be continuously on order. It cannot be akin to that of a housewife who runs out of vegetables and then runs to the neighbourhood vendor to buy some for the next meal. The currently favoured sporadic method of procurement is a guarantee that the Navy will suffer from the ills of block obsolescence and block deletions from active service – and needless to add, block shortfalls in fleet strength. Ship-building programmes (and that includes submarines) should have a perspective of one ship-life, which averages twenty to twenty-five years. It would seem to be elementary that to maintain a force level of twenty submarines with a life span of twenty years, we would need to place an order for at least one submarine each year. But this has never happened – the Government adheres staunchly to its practice of piecemeal approvals, 30-year building plans notwithstanding. The true measure of intent to secure the nation’s defence capability is the amount of funding that is committed in the long term.

Looking more closely at the numbers, the Indian Navy’s strength of submarines today is 16 - already a sharp fall of 18% in ten years from the peak figure of 19 in 1994. Of these, the two Vela class which are thirty years old cannot be considered combat-worthy. Two of the remaining 14 were purchased from Russia in 1997 and 2000, and have adequate life left. All the remaining submarines are between 14 and 20 years old and will be due for decommissioning in the next five to ten years. Their service lives can of course be extended by expensive refurbishment, but this would be an incremental approach, with marginal and transient benefits. In stark terms, this means that unless twelve submarines are acquired in the next ten-odd years, the strength of the Indian Navy’s submarine arm will dwindle and it will lose any claim to being an effective force. Given the slow pace of decision-making in defence procurement matters, the outlook was anything but rosy and it was evident that the Government had no option at this stage but to go for a dual approach of outright procurement and indigenous construction.

The Scorpene Project

Having won approval for the 30-year submarine-building programme, NHQ pressed the case for its early commencement. After a detailed analysis of existing options, the Navy selected the French Scorpene class for construction in India . The HDW Type 214 had also been considered but had been rejected by NHQ, as it did not include a sub-launched missile capability, unlike the Scorpene, which would ensure that the French would supply the Exocet missile. No doubt the scandal surrounding the HDW deal of the eighties and the ensuing political turmoil still rankled with the Government. Taking all aspects into consideration, in December 1999, the Government gave the go-ahead for NHQ to commence formal negotiations with the French firm for a certain number of submarines to be built in India with their collaboration and assistance. The discussions went on for a few years, with a positive decision always appearing to be just round the corner. In April 2003, the visiting French Defence Minister Michelle Alliot Marie, speaking of defence cooperation between the two countries, expressed the hope that the contract for six Scorpenes would be signed by the end of that year. In October 2004, speaking with journalists, the CNS Admiral Arun Prakash remarked that the question was under examination at the highest levels of the Government and that a decision could be expected in the near future. Several months later the matter was reported to have come up for discussion by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), but no decision was announced. Media reports attributed this to a query by one member on the financial terms of the proposed contract.

Just when it appeared that a decision was imminent, matters took an intriguing turn. In a shrewdly timed gambit, the German submarine building yard which had supplied the four SSK (“Shishumar” class) submarines in 1981, were emboldened by their being cleared of malafide intent in the deal by the Delhi High Court to claim that they should be re-considered for award of the contract. (Interestingly, the ownership of the HDW shipyard had passed into American hands after it was bought over by a Chicago bank, Bank One, in 2003. It was suspected that the bank was acting on behalf of Northrop, the American military equipment manufacturer). The intervention by HDW hardly appeared justifiable as the HDW Type 212/214 had been considered along with the Scorpene during the evaluation and selection process by Naval expert teams, and rejected as unsuitable on various counts. Among other reasons, the HDW offer had no provision for a submarine launched missile, which the Scorpene did. The main selling point of the HDW yard, it would now appear, is that the Type 214 is equipped with the AIP system. This is a matter that has already engaged the attention of the Naval staff at the time of the selection process, who would have taken into consideration that the Scorpene, too, can be fitted with an AIP system. (The significance of AIP systems has already been discussed earlier in this article).

This move by HDW and the pressure that it is applying at various levels will dismay the Navy, as the decision on the Scorpene Project has already been inordinately delayed. If the whole examination is recommenced de novo, there will be a major delay in the Project. The allegations by the American-owned German yard of not being given a fair chance may well make our nervous Defence Ministry react in the way they know best, by postponing the decision.

As far as the Navy is concerned, such delays are no longer affordable. The Submarine Arm has reached a critical stage in its force level management and failure to act now will make a serious dent in the country’s naval capability. If the Scorpene contract had been signed in 2002, when it was finalised, the first submarine would have been operational in 2009, and the sixth in 2015. Even if the contract were to be finalised tomorrow, the unavoidable gestation period in any project of this nature could mean a slide in submarine force levels starting in two or three years from now.

There are two important issues at stake here. One is the declining force level of submarines, which directly impinges on national security in the immediate term. The other is the need to establish an indigenous submarine building capability, which is a strategic imperative that has been too long and too lightly brushed aside. Both these aspects must be addressed without further delay. In recent times, fear of allegations of corruption has inhibited decision-making in defence procurement. National security cannot be held hostage to such fear, nor should rejected suppliers be allowed to derail Naval force development programmes.

This article first appeared in the Indian Defence Review Volume 20(3) and has been reproduced here with the permission of the editor